Debate Magazine

Exorcists, Creationists & Maccabees

By Cris

Last night the Discovery Channel premiered “The Exorcist Files.” When initially announced, the show was touted as a partnership between Discovery and the Vatican:

“The Vatican is an extraordinarily hard place to get access to, but we explained we’re not going to try to tell people what to think,” says Discovery president and GM Clark Bunting. Bunting says the investigators believe a demon can inhabit an inanimate object (like a home) or a person. The network executive says he was initially skeptical when first meeting the team but was won over after more than three hours of talks. “The work these folks do, and their conviction in their beliefs, make for fascinating stories,” Bunting says.

Bunting wins today’s credulous award. Only three hours of listening and he’s game for stories. This would be a good time to recall Nietzsche: “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”

So I watched the show, which apparently was not blessed by the Vatican but which also did not oppose it. First impression: if a shaman rather than a Catholic priest were telling these kinds of stories, most would consider the shaman a “primitive” and naive storyteller who believes in all kinds of fantastic magic. When Catholic priests say the same things, it is considered “religious.”

Second impression: everyone kept talking about evidence that supports the stories but no evidence was ever presented. Go figure. The show’s producer speaks to the issue: “It is a show about faith. There’s no empirical way to prove this stuff but science can’t explain everything.” He’s right — anatomists can’t explain this:

Exorcists, Creationists & Maccabees

Over at Slate, Jeremy Stahl interviews Lawrence Wright for his piece on conspiracy theorists. Wright’s comments sound familiar: “I spent a lot of time trying to reason with various people who had these kinds of perspectives. And it was very frustrating. There was absolutely no way to argue with them because they rejected any kind of factual evidence. What they call facts aren’t typically facts. They sound like facts.” This is why I stopped arguing with creationists more than a decade ago.

Finally, we have the seemingly bizarre (but which should have been expected) news that the Catholic anti-Semite Mel Gibson is doing a film on second century BCE hero of Jewish nationalism Judah Maccabee. Over at The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg talks circumcision with Gibson and comments on Maccabee:

I’m working on a biography of Judah Maccabee…and so it was brought to my attention that Gibson is preoccupied with the subject. (My preoccupation is simple: Judah Maccabee led the first revolt for religious freedom in recorded history, and he is without parallel as a guerrilla fighter and as a man of faith.

A few years ago, I was having dinner with Christopher Hitchens, who had recently launched an excoriating attack on Judah Maccabee in his book, God is Not Great (Hitchens blames Judah Maccabee for, essentially, his success — the Maccabean revolt helped preserve, against the force and power of Greek culture, what Hitchens might call jealous-God Judaism, and thus paved the way for the birth of Christianity, which Hitch, as I’m sure you know, regrets).

This exchange places too much emphasis on Western monotheism and ignores the massive history of Mesopotamian religions that preceded (and profoundly influenced) this tradition. Maccabee did not lead the first revolt for religious freedom and while tribal nationalism can be a matter of faith, we needn’t buy the biblical myth that Maccabee was fighting for faith. It is of course a time honored tradition to cloak earthly goals in the mantle of faith. While I doubt that Gibson’s movie will explore Maccabee’s mundane motivations, let’s hope that Goldberg’s book does.

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